First Bite

At Nellie's Sports Bar, Some Food to Root For

Ten plasma TV screens -- more are on the way -- line the walls at Nellie's Sports Bar. On the menu, Latin America drubs the USA.
Ten plasma TV screens -- more are on the way -- line the walls at Nellie's Sports Bar. On the menu, Latin America drubs the USA. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, September 19, 2007

She wanted to introduce tapas. He voted for traditional American bar food. In the end, Rocio Anzola-Mendez and Doug Schantz, co-owners of Nellie's Sports Bar (900 U St. NW; 202-332-6355), compromised: Washington's latest gay watering hole mixes mini-sandwiches, wings and brownies with empanadas, arepas and tres leches cake.

The latter flavors are no surprise to anyone who knows the background of Anzola-Mendez. A friend of Schantz's since the two of them worked at the same advertising agency, the native Venezuelan also runs Cubano's restaurant in Silver Spring with her husband, Adolfo Mendez. The trio's mutual venture, in what was once the studio of noted photographer Addison Scurlock, encompasses two floors and 5,000 square feet housing 10 plasma TV screens, two bars, one airy dining room and one (woo-hoo!) rooftop deck on the corner of Ninth and U streets.

What sounds like a gay slur isn't: Nellie's pays homage to Schantz's great- and great-great-grandmothers, both named Nellie, one of whom is captured in sepia-toned photographs on the wall. True to its theme, the sports bar sticks to showing games on its TV monitors and displaying tennis rackets, oars and trophies as decorations; the bathroom sinks once wet the hands of spectators at Washington's old Griffith Stadium. The athletically challenged customer isn't left out of the fun. Nellie's stocks board games (checkers, anyone?), which can be played atop tall black tables on the ground floor.

What to eat? Whatever Maria Rondon, who splits her time between Cubano's and Nellie's, has a hand in making. The cook's piping-hot empanadas are pure pleasure, and the best is filled with ground chuck seasoned with tomato, green bell pepper, garlic and onion. Like a lot of the food here, the snack can be ordered for "yourself," "pals" or the "team": four, eight or 12 servings, respectively. A nod to Anzola-Mendez's homeland, the arepas are almost the equal of the empanadas; available at brunch on Saturday and Sunday, the saucer-shaped corn muffins are offered with a choice of one of 10 add-ons, including chicken salad and chorizo, plus sweet plantains and sour cream. ("Use your hands," she coaches novices she sees eating their arepas with silverware.)

Less thrilling is the American stuff on the menu. In its first few innings, Nellie's arid sliders are no match for the juicy baby burgers served at Matchbox in Chinatown, and a powdery Caesar sports all the charm of an airplane salad. Macaroni-and-cheese fritters sound like the kitchen's attempt to bulk up its clientele. "We're a work in progress," says Anzola-Mendez, whose partner Schantz promises "more screens to come" for sports fans.

Let's just hope they let Maria play more often.

"Home plates," $7-$12.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company